First degree murder carries the most significant sentence in Pennsylvania – death or life in prison without parole. In Pennsylvania murder in the first degree is defined as the intentional killing of another person by means of poison, lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated (planned) killing. This includes shootings, stabbings, etc. Click below for Section 2502 which defines murder in Pennsylvania.

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Second degree murder is the act of killing another person during the commission of a felony. The sentence for this crime is mandatory life in prison without parole. Common underlying felonies which trigger the felony murder rule include:

  • drug trafficking/dealing,
  • robbery,
  • carjacking,
  • arson, and
  • kidnapping.

Pennsylvania’s felony murder rule applies to both principals and accomplices. For example, under PA law, an accomplice to the crime of robbery (the get-away driver) can be found guilty of felony murder where a bank security officer is shot and killed by the principal actor (the individual who actually committed the robbery).


Under Section 2502, “All other kinds of murder shall be murder of the third degree. Murder of the third degree is a felony of the first degree.” Third degree murder is punishable by a prison sentence of 10-20 years. Killing someone without premeditation or without intention is third degree murder, so long as it was not done while committing a felony (second degree murder).


Voluntary Manslaughter – Serious Provocation

In Pennsylvania, the crime of voluntary manslaughter, a first degree felony, is defined as the killing of another person without lawful justification, if at the time of the act, the individual is acting under a sudden and intense passion or under serious provocation. Under the law, an individual can be provoked by the person who was killed or another person (whom the individual sought to kill, but negligently or accidently killed another person instead). For example, a Philadelphia resident would be guilty of voluntary manslaughter under circumstances where he is enraged by the actions of a neighbor and either 1. shoots and kills the neighbor, or 2. shoots, misses and kills another person.

Involuntary Manslaughter – Reckless Act

Involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor of the first degree, is defined as the killing of a person that resulted from an unlawful act or lawful act which was committed in a reckless or grossly negligent manner. An individual driving a car at high speed through a school zone during school hours is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when he hits and kills a child crossing the street.


David S. Nenner is a criminal lawyer with decades of experience handling complex murder cases in the greater Philadelphia area including Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Berks counties. He also handles murder cases in the Lehigh Valley area including Scranton/Lackawanna County. FREE CONSULTATIONS (215) 564-0644.

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18 Pennsylvania Statutes Annotated Section 2502

(a) Murder of the first degree.–A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing.

(b) Murder of the second degree.–A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.

(c) Murder of the third degree.–All other kinds of murder shall be murder of the third degree. Murder of the third degree is a felony of the first degree.

(d) Definitions.–As used in this section the following words and phrases shall have the meanings given to them in this subsection:

“Fireman.” Includes any employee or member of a municipal fire department or volunteer fire company.

“Hijacking.” Any unlawful or unauthorized seizure or exercise of control, by force or violence or threat of force or violence.

“Intentional killing.” Killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.

“Perpetration of a felony.” The act of the defendant in engaging in or being an accomplice in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing, or attempting to commit robbery, rape, or deviate sexual intercourse by force or threat of force, arson, burglary or kidnapping.

“Principal.” A person who is the actor or perpetrator of the crime.